Right after Matt Stell and his co-writers — Alison Veltz and Ash Bowers — finished writing “Prayed for You,” the singer suspected that the song was something special. Still, he didn’t know it would become the lead single off of his 2019 EP, Everywhere But On, and he certainly didn’t know it would crack the Top 20 on the Billboard country charts. Stell couldn’t have predicted how strongly fans would latch onto the song, but looking back, he’s got some ideas about why “Prayed for You” rang true with so many people.
“Even if you don’t deserve something, or you feel like you don’t — like, the guy in the song doesn’t, you know? He [feels like he doesn’t deserve] to be as lucky as he is in this relationship — it’s the same thing with anything in life,” Stell reflects to Country Now. “Whether it’s a relationship, a job, school, having kids, adopting kids, any of those things where it’s a long process and nothing’s guaranteed. But that reward could be great, you know, if you just hang in there long enough and give something cool the opportunity to happen. I like to think that’s what people respond to in the song.”
It’s difficult for Stell not to compare the song’s message to his own situation, as a break-out artist in an impossibly competitive industry. “It takes so much, you know, luck, to be in the situation I’m in,” he admits. “There are so many talented people in this town. It takes some good fortune for things to happen in the way you want ‘em to. Really, the only thing that you can ever do is just try to hang in there as best you can. And I will say, I did that. For sure.”
Career success is all the sweeter for Stell after the long, tumultuous path that led him here. The singer didn’t always plan on going into music; as a college student at Drury University, he nearly decided to pursue a career in professional basketball, and later, in 2014, he was offered admission to Harvard University’s Extension School Pre-Med program. Through it all, he continued playing his songs in bars and enjoyed a smattering of hits on the Texas charts.
“[It was] something I was passionate about, something I could work hard at because it didn’t really feel like work all the time,” Stell laughs. “I probably started acting like I was gonna play music for a living way before I admitted to myself that that was what I wanted to do.”
As the singer tells it, music became a dominant force in his life around the same time that his career as a basketball player began to wind down. Those two passions held similar spots in his heart, and even though he doesn’t play anymore, Stell still looks at the world through a sports lens sometimes. So it was when he learned that he would be playing “Prayed for You” at the nationally televised wedding of Krystal Neilson and Chris Randone, two alums of ABC show Bachelor in Paradise. Stell doesn’t typically follow the show — “I’ve been on an episode of The Bachelor longer than I’ve ever seen an episode of The Bachelor,” he jokes — but thanks to his sports background, he knew how important it was to be prepared.
“I got a little scouting report from my friends, a lot of my songwriting friends that are girls, that watch the show, and learned the ins and outs,” he continues. “Who’s who, what’s what. And I got me some game day film, and I consulted that.”
After all, Stell points out, love and sports have some common ground. “There may not be a scoreboard, the way there is in certain sports, but there definitely are wins and losses,” he adds. “So I have respect for that, and for the people that, that’s their thing. And I learned a lot about it in the process.”
Now 35, Stell made his foray into the country mainstream a little bit later in life than some of his peers, but he has several lives — and lessons learned — under his belt to show for it. Aside from the additional perspective of having a “sports lens” through which to look at the world, the singer says he had time to grow into who he is as an artist. “‘Cause I just picked it up so late, luckily, I was able to sort of…make records and make every mistake you can doing that, long enough to learn about songs, and making music, and being in a band,” he offers.
“I learned a lot of things about trying to [find a voice that is uniquely mine,]” Stell goes on to say. “You can’t just be somebody else, you gotta be a new thing — but okay, how do you do that? It took me years to figure that out, hone in on it.”
He describes his Everywhere But On EP as a breakthrough step in getting to the heart of his musical identity. It’s difficult for any artist to articulate exactly what it is that they do naturally, but Stell says that one theme that he hopes will go on to be a hallmark of his career is versatility. “We open the show with a song called ‘Sex, Drugs and Country Music,’” he points out. “That’s how wide we go [from ‘Prayed for You’], from Saturday night to Sunday morning. I hope that there’s some original ideas in there, original takes on the tropes of country music, of drinking, and loving, and all that stuff.”